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Meta-Technology: Questions That Have Not Yet Been Asked

Sometimes, I have thoughts that will not quiet themselves until I express them in writing.  I’m not sure what all is implied in the following article, but I had to get it off my chest.  If there is some substance here, maybe someone can take it and run with it.  If not, at least it was an interesting idea. 

The Sarah Palin email boondoggle of 2011 in which a cache of released emails was seized by her detractors who hoped it would be a goldmine of potential politically damaging information ended up as a misguided failure.  In terms of meta-technology, however, it opened up a fascinating field of questions totally unrelated to politics.  In less than two years of her gubernatorial reign, Palin generated a total of 25,000 emails, not including any of her public missives, official documents and speeches.  Assuming that the governor was on the job for 730 days, the 25K number breaks down to just over thirty-two emails per day.  Since it is doubtful that she was on the job for that many days straight, a more realistic number would be fifty emails per day.  If we factor in the additional kinds of communication, it is possible that she (or her office) produced sixty to seventy capsules of information every day.  

To put this into perspective, it is estimated that the complete writings of Abraham Lincoln added up to ten to fifteen thousand items, including political writings, presidential statements and speeches, along with manifold personal notes, letters and telegrams.  The range of time in which his writings were generated spanned the years from 1809 to April 14, 1865, the day of his death.  On that final day, he wrote three notes.   That means that in two years, Sarah Palin produced over five times the volume of communications than one of the most prolific writers in American political history generated in his lifetime!  

If you are trying to make political sense out of this, you are missing the point.  This has nothing to do with politics.  It is a staggering statistic that we who are steeped in technological devices and praxis have not yet begun to address.  The short term impact of technology involves convenience, speed, ease of use and accuracy.  The long term impact, however, is that it is making our perception—and perhaps, even our reality—of life far different than any of us can imagine. 

I propose to begin a new conversation.  If technology enables us to utilize our time beyond our forebears to an exponential degree, the content and quality of the end product notwithstanding, that necessarily makes us more productive.  It also gives rise to this question:  are we living faster and doing more?  Of course.  Silly question.  A question that is not so silly is:  does this increased productivity mean that, in a virtual sense, are we living longer lives?  Wikipedia says, 

“Relativity states that if one were to move away from the Earth at relativistic velocities and return, more time would have passed on Earth than for the traveler, so in this sense it is accepted that relativity allows “travel into the future” (according to relativity there is no single objective answer to how much time has ‘really’ passed between the departure and the return, but there is an objective answer to how much proper time has been experienced by both the Earth and the traveler, i.e. how much each has aged.”  

To illustrate, if a car that travels at a speed of ten miles an hour is compared to a car traveling seventy miles an hour, we would say that the first car only traveled a distance of ten miles in an hour’s time, whereas the second car traveled seventy miles in the same hour.  The constant is the real time, the variable is the distance traveled.  It could be better expressed in mathematical nomenclature, but a bunch of x’s and y’s would freak too many readers out.  I contend that since more was accomplished (i.e. more miles driven) by the second car, then the driver, (again in a virtual sense), lived longer in the same hour as the first driver. 

To carry the car illustration further, let’s say that it is 1871.  The car you are riding in is actually a stagecoach and you are traveling from Detroit to Chicago.  At a reasonable pace of twenty-five miles a day, that was a ten to twelve day journey.  What could you do during that time?  Talk to the other passengers, read a newspaper or book (as you were bouncing along), look out the window, think.  Today, that same trip takes four hours and forty-one minutes (according to MapQuest), plus you can text message (you shouldn’t, but you can), listen to songs or speeches on the radio, talk to any number of people around the world, get stock quotes, turn on your lights and security systems or other electronic gadgetry at home or office, all the while monitoring the performance of your vehicle through your onboard computer.  If you were to do this for ten days, the same time you go from New York to Los Angeles three times while you were continually accomplishing all the other activities.  

If we were to quantify the productivity in terms of an arbitrary measurement that I will call a “unit of activity”, or UOA, we can compare the 1871 trip to the 2011 trip.  In the stagecoach trip, there may have been a total of twenty to thirty UOAs, or 0.3 UOAs per hour.  In the 2011 trip, there could possibly be 125 or more UOAs, or approximately twenty-five to thirty per hour.  That factors out to one hundred times the number of UOAs that took place on the stagecoach.  While all of these numbers are extremely ball park, the comparative figures are still proportionately valid.  The inescapable conclusion is that we are living far, far, far busier lives than our forefathers even dreamed was possible. 

The implications are enormous

If the average twenty-one year old in 2011 has one hundred times the experiences that his or her counterpart had in 1871, does this not translate into living to the age of one hundred five in terms of 1871 years?  If that hypothesis holds true, what psychological, emotional and sociological impact does that fact have on today’s “young” person?  We have all heard of children that “grow up too quickly.”  That’s just another way of saying that they have been exposed to too many adult situations while they were still very young.  Is it possible that the cynicism, nihilism and anarchical trends we witness today in those born in the 1990’s is not merely youthful rebellion but a logical outcome of the incredibly fast pace of life to which they have been subjected?  

Think with me for a moment.  If I travel ten times faster than my competitor does, at journey’s end, then I am ten times farther from my starting point or my “roots” than he or she.  So, if a young person in 2011 seems far more willing to ignore the past, contradict legacies, abandon loyalties and cut ties, is it primarily a function of the virtual distance from the starting point that he or she has created by living at warp speed?  Furthermore, is the human body able to withstand the stress levels brought on by this kind of living?  

Several social trends we see today may be the result of this fast pace of living.  “According to Herbert J. Freudenberger, the New York psychologist who coined the term in 1972, “burnout” describes a specific condition. It is an emotional state characterized by an overwhelming and enduring feeling of exhaustion or aggravation. Burnout is a condition that develops gradually as the person’s creativity and effectiveness erode into fatigue, skepticism and an inability to function productively.” (MLJ Coaching International).  This condition sounds much like the way we used to describe old age! 

Another trend is job hopping or career change.  “The notion of continual career switches is repeated in particular by career-management experts, whose jobs involve spending a lot of time with occupation switchers. ‘Based on my experience, I believe the typical person has six to seven careers, and the number is growing,’ says Jeff Neil, a New York City career counselor, in an email.”  (WSJ, 9-4-10).  If you spend what amounts to a lifetime in one career (if that is only five to ten years in real time), then a change is not all that strange. 

Is the high rate of marriage, divorce and re-marriage related to this fast pace?  I think the case could be made.  The same holds true for educational program changes, moving from house to house, state to state, or even country to country.  Changes of clothes, hairstyles, appearances, cars, gadgets, favorite games, rock stars, sports heroes, etc. all figure into living virtually longer lives. 

The questions seem interminable.  Is there as much depth as there is breadth and length to life today?  Are we a culture that is the proverbial “mile wide and an inch deep?”  Are we aging horizontally but remain adolescent in our vertical growth?  Furthermore, is aging uniform across the spectrum of individual personalogical components or do we age in an imbalanced way?  Can we age intellectually but lag behind socially? 

Meta-technology is simply the technology of the technology.  Technological advancement has changed us in such profound ways that the culture has not yet assessed the impact and perhaps will not be able to gauge the change for generations to come.  Marshall McLuhan, the media guru was asked whether the medium is still the message.  His reply was that we have gone from technology as something we do to technology as something we are.  At some point, we do have to understand what has and is happening to us as a whole.  If we don’t, we may destroy ourselves. 

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